Chinese whispers 2.0

I’m in the business of distortion and lies – and that’s been scientifically proved, I found out last night at the EPFL reception.

As I coordinated fondue and fizz and strained to hear the EPFL president above the irreverend journalist babble, I heard him announce he had scattered 50 professors amongst us, so I approached one, Robert West, and this is what I found. 

By the way, I didn’t take notes – by then I was also in charge of a miniature, gherkin-stacked breadboard – so pardon any errors in what follows. But the gist of it was that he had crowdsourced punters to summarise scientific papers, then sent those summaries out for further condensation – and so on until just a pure headline remained. 

This chain was supposed to mimic the transmission of scientific news on social media. 

The result? Many of the final headlines claimed the opposite of the original scientific paper. 

And that, he pointed out, was without any deliberate bias on behalf of the writers – that’s just the wear and tear on truth as it gets gossiped down the human babel chain.

This professor said he came up with the idea during a fruitless search for the scientific basis behind his wife’s claims that unlimited chocolate was essential for a healthy pregnancy. He asked me what I thought the result would be if science journalists summarised instead? Obviously, they would arrive at a perfect distillation of the truth every time, I loyally replied. 

Unfortunately, he left to buy chocolate for his wife before I could ask more questions – a significant element of the tale, don’t you think? And, now I come to write about it, have I got the story quite right? On reflection, I think he actually said he had found that chocolate enhances accuracy – yes, that was it. I’m off to plunder that unlimited cauldron of the stuff on the ETH Zurich stand before I start my next article. 

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